Dallas Cowboys: What role will Rico Gathers play in 2017?

Jun 14, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers (80) makes a catch during minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 14, 2016; Irving, TX, USA; Dallas Cowboys tight end Rico Gathers (80) makes a catch during minicamp at Dallas Cowboys Headquarters. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports /

One of the biggest storylines to follow for Dallas Cowboys fans this offseason will be the continued development of tight end Rico Gathers.

Little did the Dallas Cowboys know what they were getting when they drafted a tight end out of Tennessee in the third round of the 2003 NFL Draft named Jason Witten. The now 35-year old is considered one of the most complete tight ends to ever play in the NFL and a surefire first ballot Hall of Famer.

During his 14-year career, Witten has missed a total of one game due to injury. And that was during his rookie season. A leader on and off-the-field, the veteran tight end is one of the brightest stars on a Cowboys roster full of them.

Bottom line here is that a player like Witten is a hard act to follow. Many talented tight ends have wilted under his massive shadow, eventually finding success elsewhere. Names like Martellus Bennett, Anthony Fasano, Gavin Escobar and John Phillips have all come and gone partially as a result of Witten’s stellar and consistent play.

Now it seems that mantle has been handed to second-year tight end Rico Gathers. The former Baylor basketball is still trying to make the difficult transition to the NFL despite not having played organized football since middle school.

The Cowboys used their final selection in the sixth round of the 2016 NFL Draft to snatch up the developmental project. And Gathers spent all of last season on the practice squad, learning from legendary tight ends coach Mike Pope and catching touchdown passes from former quarterback Tony Romo.

This offseason, coaches describe Gathers’ development as being night and day compared to where he was at last year at this time. The 6-foot-6, 290 pound tight end has always possessed rare athleticism that is considered off-the-charts for a man his size.

Where Gathers needed to grow was in the mental aspects of the game. That included tackling the intricacies of the position and refining his technique.

The 23-year took hundreds of snaps as an offensive lineman last season to improve his blocking skills. Gathers simply dove in. And him being under Witten’s shadow in Dallas feels more like a mentor grooming an apprentice rather than a football giant blocking out the sun.

"“Rico has made some unbelievable strides,” Witten told the Dallas Morning News during his annual youth football camp. “Think about the challenge of coming in last year and not playing football since eighth grade. Physically, he’s got all the traits. He’s big. He’s strong. He’s athletic. He’s rangy. He can catch. He’s really improved with the concepts of our offense and what the responsibilities are. So, I told him and will continue to tell him to dive into that process.”"

What role will Gathers have when the regular season starts this year? That’s on him. The truth is, with tight ends James Hanna and Geoff Swaim missing time this offseason due to injury, Gathers will be the main beneficiary of those extra snaps. That will be vital for his development this offseason. And Rico must take advantage of it.

Due to his massive frame and leaping ability, Gathers is a no-brainer as a lethal red zone target. Is he a reliable blocker? Can the Cowboys coaches trust him to be where he needs to be during any given play? Those are the types of questions that will need to be answered positively this offseason if Gathers is going to have a meaningful role on this team in 2017.

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If Rico Gathers can prove to this Dallas Cowboys coaching staff he’s tackled the mental aspects of the game and his position, I’d normally say the sky is the limit. But as many other tight end prospects have learned in Dallas before him, Witten is the limit…for now.